GWR Steam Railmotor and Trailer Project

A Young Passenger Remembers

William Harbour

“It was a snuffling, shuffling sort of thing. If I remember rightly they used to jerk quite a bit when they pulled away – and the jerking became even more pronounced after the sharp turn out of Yatton. It was a very uneven motion”

William Harbour was born in Clevedon in 1920 and as a schoolboy regularly travelled by train on the branch line served by GWR steam railmotor. “If we went out anywhere in those days, we went by train”, he recalls.

His father, also William, was a railwayman – a goods-guard with the GWR – who had moved from Trowbridge to Clevedon. “In those days my father worked some 23 different shifts and on occasion could be stuck in the parcels office for 24 hours at a time.” He was responsible for freight trains running to Swindon, Taunton and Somerton. But it was on the three-and-three-quarter mile–long Clevedon branch that young Bill had his first experience of the inside of the railmotor’s cab, and a love of trains and the GWR has remained with him ever since.

“Once or twice, when the driver and fireman were waiting for the next run from Clevedon I was allowed to step up into the cab – where you could walk right round the back of the boiler. Of course, it was a rather low-pressure boiler so they were not built for speed; in fact, they were limited to 45 miles an hour. But there was not much room in the cab ; the railmotor had a very short wheelbase and being short of space, it was able to carry only relatively limited amounts of coal.”

“I do recall that when the whistle was blown it was very different to the distinctive, clear-cut sound associated with regular Great Western trains. It was more of a strangulated, watery kind of whistle.”

William, now lives with his wife Margaret at Cannons Gate in Clevedon; the couple have a daughter living in Wantage – whose husband is Headmaster of Harwell School – and three grandchildren.

He says that the main advantage for GWR of railmotors was that they were more convenient for the company to operate than trains. “And initially I’m sure they did succeed in bringing some traffic back to the railways. But as they were limited to one railmotor and one car they had relatively small carrying capacity, and as a result proved rather inefficient”. They were withdrawn from service on the Clevedon branch around 1934 and stripped of the engine unit, many were converted into auto-trailers.

After serving as an apprentice, working on gauges for Bristol Aero Company, on the outbreak of the 2nd World War, William found himself helping to build gun and shell gauges at The National Physical Laboratory in Uttoxeter. Returning to Clevedon after the war, in March 1948 he joined the staff of the University of Bristol, working as a Lab technician based in the Royal Fort building. He retired from the University in 1986.

In those early years working in Bristol he regularly caught the Clevedon to Temple Meads train, – by now operated by diesel units - running through Yatton, Nailsea and Backwell. “The Yatton to Clevedon section was timed at 7 minutes but on one occasion, the driver seemed to be in a tearing hurry and I reckon he did the run in 4 minutes flat. There were a fair few very pale faces among the passengers when we arrived!”

“What I remember most about my rail journeys as a youngster in the railmotors was the shuffling nature of the things. I suppose that would be down to the low-pressure boiler. The jerking movement meant that it was not really a very comfortable ride.” As Bill tells the story, the old ‘walkover’ seats used by GWR in these vehicles do not sound as if they were incredibly comfortable either!

William has followed the Great Western Society’s project to restore the 1908-built steam railmotor – first launched in the 1970’s – with great interest. He says “I would dearly like to see a railmotor back in working order again” But he confesses: “I have to admit I did rather despise the things as a child!”

William Harbour was interviewed by Paul Leighton in January 2007.

Probably the most historically-important project in railway preservation today
The Steam Railmotor Project
Great Western Society Limited
Didcot Railway Centre
Oxon OX11 7NJ
Registered Charity No. 272616